You have never witnessed someone so alone in the world as sweet little Icare aka Zucchini (Courgette in European usage) is in the opening scenes of My Life as a Zucchini, a tenderhearted, tremendously moving adaptation by Claude Barras of Gilles Paris’ 2002 novel Autobiographie d’une Courgette.
In near silence, we witness Zucchini (Erick Abbate/Gaspar Schlatter), with his shock of bright blue hair, and his wide open, deeply-expressive eyes, moving silently through his apartment, his father gone but not forgotten – he is represented as a superhero on the childlike artwork on the walls and on the kite that Zucchini treats as a sacred object – and his verbally, and possibly physically, abusive alcoholic mother knocking back in the loungeroom in front of the TV as if there’s no tomorrow.
Moving with stealth through his bare-as-bones apartment to collect the beer cans which are everywhere, Zucchini does his best not to rouse his mother to anger, something we see later is frighteningly easy to do, and leads to the tender young boy being sent to an orphanage outside of his home city.
As opening sequences go, it’s the equal of UP, as we witness a masterful setting of the scene, our insight into Zucchini’s blighted young life being offered in near wordless, profoundly-moving silence.
It’s not overplayed, unfurling with no emotional accenting, no histrionics, and a calm but empathetic sorrow for the state of Zucchini’s life, his life framed hauntingly by crayons lying near to crumpled beer cans.
His journey to the orphanage, which happens in traumatic circumstances that leave Zucchini even more withdrawn and non-communicative, goes by way of policeman Raymond (Michel Vuillermoz/Nick Offerman), a stroke of luck which sees a relationship established that eventual proves pivotal to the boy’s fortunes.
It is Raymond who takes Zucchini to the orphanage, overseen by the compassionate Mme Papineau (Monica Budde/Susanne Blakeshee) and two teachers, all of whom have not a trace of Miss Hannigan, the bleak, coldhearted tormentor of parent-less children from Orphan Annie.
In a major inverting of the accepted wisdom that home is a haven and orphanages are harbingers of horror, Zucchini actually finds himself better off; well, eventually anyway, with his opening days spent touchingly clutching one of his mother’s discarded beer cans and the kite bearing his father’s venerated image, and fending off Simon (Paulin Jaccound/Romy Beckman), the bully of the place, who it turns out isn’t so tough after all.
In quick order, Zucchini becomes a member of the extended family of orphans which includes a heartbreaking crosssection of society’s smallest discards, all of whom are reassured in every way possible that they have value and dignity.
In that respect, My Life as a Zucchini, is a perfectly-written, nuanced humanistic triumph which brilliantly portrays each child as real people dealt very bad hands, all of whom simply want to be loved and cared for, but who are far too cognisant of the ways of the world at too young an age to know that this will be handed to them by new parents any time soon.
It’s not Simon who manifests this rejection.
Alice (Estelle Hennard/Clara Young), who’s father engaged in what is deemed to be “creepy” behaviour by the children whose emotional maturity is not matched by very sketchy ideas of adult good and bad, and hilariously later on, sex (by Simon who interprets the act in ways naive and sweetly funny), hides behind her extensive bangs, only coming alone when fellow new arrival Camille (Sixtine Murat/Ness Krell) befriends her.
It’s the relationships between these kids, who somehow intuitively know that strength comes from banding together rather than descending into understandable (given their histories) Lord of the Flies survival of the fittest that grants this tissue-heavy film much of its emotional impact.
Along with Mme Papineau, the teaching staff – who are married and have a baby, prompting heartbreaking amazement from the kids that when they find out the new parents have no intention of giving up their child ever – and the policemen Raymond, who comes to play a lifechanging role in the lives of Zucchini and Camille, who bond very closely, the message here is that simple love and acceptance goes a long way to healing the lives of kids deprived of both.
My Life as a Zucchini, which benefits greatly from its stop motion methodicalness, which affords the film the time to tell its story with great care and thoughtfulness, is never preachy or emotionally-manipulative.
It remains happy to let the narratively elegant story, and the visually-appealing characters – this film is rich in bright, vivid colours, a visual accompaniment to an emotionally-rich storyline, which is never less than enchanting – do all the talking in simple, touching, very human terms.
Some might see the happy endings and largely sympathetic characters, with the exception of Zucchini’s vile mother and Camille’s coldly, avaricious aunt, as twee of lacking in any authenticity.
But the net effect is quite the opposite – a bare bones, all too real tale of what happens when poor, often destructive adult choices end up hurting children who have no rationale way of processing the pain and deprivation rained down upon them.
My Life as a Zucchini manages to be both winsomely sweet, winningly funny, and bleakly realistic, the children stark evidence that life can be cruel, but with the right touch from those who truly care, utterly redemptive too.